Talking Tactics

How Stones became Man City's new midfield star

By Adrian Clarke 6 Apr 2023

Adrian Clarke says centre-back may have played himself into a new role ahead of trip to St Mary's

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Adrian Clarke looks at key tactical points and players who can be decisive in Matchweek 30.

Player analysis - John Stones

Has Pep Guardiola unearthed a new tactic that provides Manchester City with even greater control of matches?

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Judging by an effortlessly assured performance from Stones, in their 4-1 win at home to Liverpool, this may well be the case.

Stones' calm distribution and smart game management from the centre of midfield allowed him to deliver an effective display as part of a double pivot alongside Rodri.

Guardiola had briefly experimented with Stones at the base of his midfield in 2018, before shelving the idea.

Now with the full trust of his manager, Stones could be in the process of playing himself into a crucial new role ahead of a trip to Southampton on Saturday.

Stones' display v Liverpool
Cool and calm

Stones has long been renowned as a composed ball-playing centre-back, but this superb display shows his ability to keep play moving in tighter spaces.

Floating around as Man City’s spare man, he was always on hand to exchange passes or to create triangles to help move the ball through the lines.

Of all the players to have started 15 Premier League matches this season, Stones is statistically the division’s most accurate passer, averaging 93.64 per cent.

Remarkably, Man City have five of the top six players in this category.

PL's most accurate passers 22/23*
Player Pass accuracy
John Stones 93.64%
Manuel Akanji 93.40%
Ruben Dias 92.59%
Daniel Amartey 91.57%
Rodri 91.37%
Nathan Ake 91.33%

*Minimum 15 starts

Stones is player who has become incredibly reliable on the ball and he predominantly keeps his passing short and crisp, rarely giving away possession.

Against Liverpool, he relinquished the ball just three times, which was the least of any starters.

Again, from those who have made 15 starts, Stones loses possession the fewest number of times per 90 minutes.

Southampton may be tempted to aggressively test how press-resistant he is in this new role at St Mary’s, but his calmness on the ball has always been a standout quality.

Least amount of possession lost 22/23*
Player Possession lost per 90
John Stones 5.76
Manuel Akanji 5.91
Daniel Amartey 6.22
Kurt Zouma 6.55
Ezri Konsa 6.84
Ruben Dias 6.91

*Minimum 15 starts

The 3-2-2-3 formation used by Guardiola against Liverpool was an absolute triumph.

Playing Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez high and wide, Man City stretched out the pitch and pinned Liverpool’s defence into their own half.

Inside them, Guardiola used a box-shaped four-man midfield which outnumbered Liverpool’s three-man unit, pulling them apart with intelligent movement, sharp angles, and excellent passing.

Guardiola's new formation
Man City starting formation v Liverpool

When Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan occupied slightly wider positions, it had the effect of either dragging Liverpool’s midfielders away from the centre, leaving a pathway for striker Julian Alvarez to receives passes.

Or, as we saw in the build-up to the opening goal, it occasionally drew a defender, on this occasion left-back Andrew Robertson, towards the ball, leaving space for a Man City forward to profit from in behind.

De Bruyne passes to Mahrez v Liverpool

If this system is repeated against Southampton - who have used a 4-4-2 in recent matches - head coach Ruben Selles will need to plan meticulously for where his players’ marking responsibilities lie.

Whichever shape he uses, he will need to keep a rigid back-four in place, so clear communication will be vital for the six outfield players ahead of them.

In a narrow 4-2-3-1 set-up, Southampton did beat Man City 2-0 in the EFL League Cup in January.

For that match, Southampton adopted a hostile press to disrupt their opponents’ 4-3-3 inside their own half, at times going man-to-man.

If Stones is able to orchestrate play like he did last weekend, Man City will be confident of avenging that cup defeat to Southampton.

Also in this series

Part 1: What Liverpool midfield must do to stop Arsenal
Part 3: How Hodgson has taken the shackles off Palace

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